How Do You Respond to Stress?

Thumping heart, blood drumming in the ears, sense of panic, sleeplessness. The list of stress responses goes on. Most of us could get much better at dealing with stress. It’s not so much why we worry that’s important; it’s how we respond to stressful factors that matters. When a challenge arises responses are typically as follows:

  • Cool under pressure. Are you calm and collected, giving your brain a chance to see a path forward, or is your mind filled with anxious, worried, and stressful thoughts that wear you out?
  • Open communicator. Do you share your struggles with people in your life in a way that creates connections, or do you keep them to yourself and suffer in silence?
  • Active problem solver. Do you face challenges head-on and make a plan, or do you deny the reality of what’s happening in your life and distract yourself?

Over 50% of workers fall into one of two categories. In a study Michelle Gielan described them as “Venters” (27%) and “Five Alarmers” (26%).

Venters are very open about stressful events in their lives. While they are able to acknowledge and communicate about their stress, that is where they stop. They don’t take positive action to deal with the stress.

Five Alarmers are also good at communicating that they are stressed but they take concrete actions to address the problem. The issue with Five Alarmers is that they tend not to differentiate between low level and high level stress situations, treating each stressful situation with the same level of energy. It means they can get exhausted and suffer a massive emotional cost.

There is a third group (Calm Responders) who respond coolly and rationally to challenges. Members of this group can generally draw on valued resources which means they quickly move to the action and resolution phase.

According to Gielan we can change our responses to stressful factors over time and move towards being a calm responder. If you’d like to be calmer the next time a stressful event arises, make a list of several stressful events from your past that you were successful at solving (for example, maybe you got through the breakup of a relationship or achieved a tight deadline on a big project), and then look at the list the next time you feel your heart starting to race, to remind yourself of those accomplishments. If you tend to bottle up stress or deny negative events, phone a friend the next time a stressor arises. If you’re distracting yourself instead of creating an action plan, get yourself to choose a “now step,” a small, meaningful action you can take right away that might not solve the whole problem but that will get your brain moving forward.

By understanding our personal approach when it comes to responding to problems, we can shift our thinking and behaviour to respond better and pay less of an emotional cost after the stressful event is over. That’s got to be a better option.

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